Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Last Week's Horror Comics Today!

So one of our semi-regular Tuesday features here on the Dork Forty is "Last Week's Comics Today," a review run-down of the funnybooks I bought the previous Wednesday. But, since the Halloween Countdown has sorta taken over the blog this month, and since I don't read that many horror comics, I haven't really done that (last night's Batman post doesn't count. Because, you know... Batman!). But last week I actually did buy some horror comics! So here, tonight, are Last Week's Horror Comics Today! Starting with the current version of an old favorite...

House of Mystery Halloween Annual #2
Written and Drawn by Various

I wrote off Vertigo's current incarnation of the House of Mystery after the first issue. The promise of an anthology format with an on-going story as its backbone seemed kind of nifty, but I didn't like the set-up that much: they turned the House into a bar, with a staff that can't leave even though the patrons come and go every issue. I didn't find the cast all that compelling, either. Too normal, or either too whacky, to find my favor. And then there was the biggest problem: without this guy...

...it ain't the House of Mystery. That's Cain, for the uninformed among you, the host of the original House of Mystery comic from the mid-60s on through to its bitter demise 20 years later. Cain's my all-time favorite funnybook horror host, and I just couldn't push past to accept a House of Mystery without him at the helm. If it had been better-written, maybe, but as it was? No way!

So imagine my surprise (nay, delight!) to find that evil old bastard staring out at me from the cover of this Halloween Annual! It's not a great cover, mind you. The art's a little funky, and it's not laid-out well. But to hell with that, I thought! It's got CAIN on it! So I had to buy it.

And it was... pretty okay. It apes the format of the House of Mystery anthology comics I grew up on, with Cain providing a framework narration for a group of stories. But the stories all serve as "sampler" tales for a handful of Vertigo's on-going horror series, and the Cain framing device falls away after the initial House of Mystery segment. Which sort of defeats the whole point of doing it in the first place.

Also, the stories all involve a group of trick-or-treaters under a gypsy curse to trick-or-treat forever, all across creation. The kids weren't allowed to grow up by the curse, but their bodies are aging as if they did. So they're a group of haggard-looking middle-aged children. Which is pretty cool, except... They're not depicted consistently in the other stories. We're introduced to them in the House of Mystery section, which is good fun. The kids and their plight are played with the sort of black comedy touch that the Cain character always brought to the proceedings in the old days (and even, to a lesser extent, in his Swamp Thing and Sandman appearances).

But in Matt Wagner's Madame Xanadu story, the trick-or-treaters might as well be different characters in the same costumes. Wagner makes each of them the victim of a different cliched brand of child abuse, which isn't funny or scary, just sad. Then they appear very, very briefly as teenage thugs in Peter Milligan's Hellblazer story, which seems more like an excuse to bring people up to date on that series' current plotlines than a story in its own right. The iZombie piece works better as a story (and has the usual gorgeous Mike Allred artwork), but it treats them as eternal children in their equally-brief (though much more plot-driven) appearance there. Then we finally get back to something approaching the first story's version of the characters for the last piece in the book, which seems to be a throw-away look back to Mike Carey and Pete Gross' long-since-done Lucifer series.

So in short, this book is a freaking mess. A failure of editorial communication of the first order, and not much of a reading experience, taken as a whole. If you're going to have this link between the stories, you'd better make sure that link is consistent. And if you're going to start with a narrative frame, you have to continue with that frame throughout, or you're just wanking off. If each individual segments were better, I could forgive the inconsistencies. But they're not. The House of Mystery segment is by far the best of the lot (and I'm not just saying that because Cain's in it, either). The rest of the issue is indifferent at best, and lazy at worst. None of it's actively bad (well... the Madame Xanadu thing comes close), but little of it's actively good either. So, bah! BAH! I say! The only thing keeping this book from a failing grade is the care put into the opening tale. And Cain, of course. Because it really was nice to see the old bastard.

Grade: C-

Hellblazer: City of Demons #1 (of 5)
by Si Spencer and Sean Murphy

As followers of the Dork Forty know, I have a... complex relationship with Hellblazer. I love this book, in concept, and have loved it, in reality, a lot in the past. There have been long dry stretches for it with me, like any long-running series of this type, and I run hot and cold on the current run by Pete Milligan. But ultimately for me, Hellblazer is to horror comics what the Fantastic Four is to super hero comics: if it's even halfway good, I'll probably buy it. And it's always extra exciting when somebody does something really good with it. And that's what we get with the first issue of this mini-series: damn good Hellblazer.

Seriously, this issue has everything you could possibly want out of a John Constantine story: John being a nasty magical bastard to some thugs who deserve it! John suffering horribly himself immediately after! John playing magic detective while fighting back a slowly-rising panic that his troubles are the work of one (or more) of the demons he's pissed off over the years! Headless (and legless) ghosts! And a twist at the end that promises something much more interesting in the issues to come. But maybe more importantly, it gives the character his dignity back, that effortless nasty cool he emanated in the Alan Moore Swamp Thing stories in which he first appeared.

That sense of cool has often been lacking in the Hellblazer series, even in the good runs. And after reading this issue I wonder if that's what's been bugging me the most about the current Milligan take on the character: I don't really care about John's insecurities as an aging punk rocker. Even as an aging punk rocker myself, his bouts of angst over not being young and cool anymore (in spite of the hot young thing throwing herself at him every second issue) just don't interest me. People get older. Deal.

But we got none of that here. Constantine's definitely middle-aged in this book, and he even makes a crack about becoming a cranky old man. But he's still quick and sharp and mean, just the way he should be. And artist Sean Murphy makes him look good doing it. Constantine's face isn't wrinkled here, it's creased. As if the skin's too thin, and the bone too sharp. It's a nice look. Combine it with the sharp-ass black zippered trenchcoat Murphy puts on him, and Our Boy John looks every bit as cool in 2010 as he did when he first wandered into the swamps back in 1985. Maybe all that sounds shallow, and maybe it is. But "cool" is an important factor for a hard-boiled character like Constantine. He needs to be edgy, and Spencer and Murphy deliver edgy in spades.

All in all, in spite of a couple of cliches in John's narration, this was the best Hellblazer comic I've read in many a moon. Looking forward to the rest of the mini. And when Milligan's done with the book... Si Spencer wouldn't be a bad replacement.

Grade: A-


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